“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”
Said a love-struck teenage girl.
And NO ONE else.
A hardened military veteran is not uttering said phrase.
Neither a priest nor a prostitute nor a plumber.
Even if all of them were women.
This is the third part in a series on finding your way past writer’s block using history. Part One: Setting and Action and Part Two: Character may also interest you. For Part Three, we delve into the deep waters of dialogue. This is not intended to be a ‘how to write dialogue’ article. Rather I hope it will help you over some of the hurdles that I have experienced in trying to make dialogue interesting and revealing.
The best dialogue is inexorably linked to the character saying it, with no mistaking it for something any other character would say. It shows us who a character is in a way description could (and perhaps should) not. That’s a lofty goal to live up to, and certainly it’s impossible for every line a character says to be unique to that character:
“What’s the time?”
“Shit – just two more minutes until we all die in a horrible zombie attack!”
Sometimes these exchanges just have to be made. But how do you overcome the challenge of writing a scene where the characters are just all starting to sound alike?
1. Go back to their occupations or social standing
Do a little research into the occupations you’ve given them. Different jobs come with different lingo. Lawyers use words like ‘wherefore’ more than any other group except Juliets. A tradesperson may use expressions like ‘hitting the nail on the head’ whereas a soldier will ‘cut through the bullshit.’ (Jeez – I’m cursing a lot today. Sorry ’bout that).
In every period people from different classes and occupations speak with a lingo all their own. Like anything else, you don’t want to overdo it, but it can be useful if one or two characters have a verbal tick to make them unique. Also, the flip can be just as interesting – a character speaking out of ‘class’ as a disguise or out of pomposity.
2. Decide how truthful each character should be
The short answer to this is ‘not truthful at all.’
Characters should be unwilling to reveal their deepest fears – but these are the motivation for their actions. So dialogue is a way of having characters talk around their fears, without spilling all the beans. For example, Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes:
Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?
And he can point this out quite clearly to the audience because it is a surface level fear – like people being afraid of getting shot. But underneath the surface fear of snakes, Indiana is remembering how he was dumped into a train car full of snakes when he tried to do the right thing: deliver a priceless artifact to a museum. The snakes represent the failure of his idealistic self to reach his goal. The artifact was taken back by tomb robbers – and to compound this failure was his father’s complete unconcern for the fact that his son needed his help. I know I’m reading quite a bit into an action sequence, but watch the first scene of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and you’ll get what I’m rambling about.
But Indiana is never going to say:
Why do I bother braving danger to bring the rich past of humanity to museums for everyone to share? And why can’t I rely on my father to help me in my quest?
So instead he says: “Why snakes?”
When you are looking for dialogue, search for the experiences of your character (in their historical setting) that shape who they are and can stand in for a flat statement about a character’s motivation.
3. Go back to the myths, stories, and religions for parallels
No surprise – people love stories! And people relate to stories on a deep level. This has happened all throughout history. Are there stories from literature or religion that your character may make parallels with? Could this come out in their dialogue?
Do characters come from backgrounds with conflicting stories or similar ones? This could be the start of a debate, or a wedge between characters that have vastly different world-views.
For example, a character that believes in the pantheon of Roman gods will have a much different mentality towards certain activities, such as sex, than a Christian monk. (Or maybe not – it’s your story!)
4. Read some first-hand narratives of the time-period of your story
I know! Like a broken record – I always say ‘read more.’ Even if you have done copious research (as I am assuming you have), go back and really read a narrative for the flow of the words. Are there any interesting terms that were used during that time? Any ways of expressing ideas that scream 16th century English or Indus Valley farmer? Even if you don’t want to use outdated expressions (which may alienate a reader), you can try to draw a modern equivalent, or put it into a more accessible voice.
I haven’t thought of a part four for this series yet, but I’m sure I’ll find a new way to hit the Great Wall of Writer’s Block soon! Stay tuned and, as always, I am happy to hear your dialogue triumphs and tragedies. So feel free to comment or email with any thoughts.